Totally Freaking Out (but not at my family…for once)

A few days ago, I went off the rails.

My husband’s high school musical is in tech and production this week, so I’ve been a single parent for a few weeks.  He said good night to the kids last Sunday night, and he didn’t see them again until yesterday morning.  He left an hour before they woke up every day and he got home four hours after they went to bed.  In spite of this, things were really going fine.  I find that the kids are more cooperative when I’m alone with them; maybe that’s because my expectations are lowered and I can’t be passive aggressive in hoping that my husband will say, “Let me do dinner and clean all the dishes and put the kids to bed…you just have a glass of wine.”

Wednesday was going to be especially rough, driving back and forth, dropping off one kid and then the other across town, picking up pizza, popping it in the oven on low wondering if I’d burn the house down if I left it on while I picked up one kid and then the other, deciding that was stupid to leave the oven on and texting our neighbor to see if she could turn it off for me.  (She did.)  Amidst all of this madness, I get a text from my friend J in St. Louis: a flame war was crackling on her Facebook page, and she needed some back up.  She had posted a link to this great post on talking to people about Ferguson, and one friend in particular had responded with some calmly worded counterpoint.  I took a look on my phone while idling in the parking lot of the Gymnastics Academy:

As a law-abiding person, you want to believe that the facts show a clear indication that Michael Brown was surrendering because that makes it easier to process – the lazy narrative. Your friend in Boston wants to teach his children that Michael Brown was doing “nothing wrong” when stopped, even though I think most people would not describe robbing a store, assaulting a store clerk, fighting a police officer and resisting arrest as not doing anything wrong. Again, the lazy narrative. So if the take away lesson to the children is that police shouldn’t shoot people who aren’t doing anything wrong, how does that not perpetuate the notion that people who ARE doing something wrong probably deserve it (an attitude displayed repeatedly after the robbery video was released)?

I am of course the “friend in Boston” and she’s referring to my blog post last week.  While my daughter whined in the backseat about getting out of the car, I glanced at the clock and realized I had a few minutes to respond.  I tapped out an improvised comment:

Am I the friend in Boston you’re referring to? What evidence do you have that I want to teach kids that Brown was doing nothing wrong? Did you read my blog post? My feeling is to focus in on why people are so upset and how biased impact daily actions, fatally sometimes when it comes to law enforcement officers. I agree with you that the solution is to approach situations with as little bias as possible, but I think that’s simply impossible. We are all victims of bias; it’s in the air we breath. We need to be aware of them and teach children to do the same in the hopes that those biases will have less of an impact on action.

I turned off my phone and returned to my soccer mom duties.  During a (thankfully still warm) pizza dinner, I read her response:

In your proposed explanation of the Ferguson issue to a toddler, you suggest telling children that “a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.” I’m not quite sure how else that statement can be interpreted? I certainly won’t pretend to know how difficult it is to have that conversation with a child of color, but I do feel strongly that it’s important to be honest when speaking of the circumstances for a number of reasons. And honesty often does require a painful, intentional decision to not take the easiest way out (i.e., the lazy way). There are many difficult discussions around this issue that are highly charged with emotion. How difficult it has been for hardworking people in Ferguson to see their property values just absolutely sunk over the past two decades because of an influx of poor residents and the increase in crime and damage to educational system. The officers who are working in an area so dangerous that often ambulances will not respond to 911 calls without a police escort. So if you’re going to use the “you don’t understand” card, then you need to be open to those discussions as well.

Now you’ll see that she later claims she is being rational and logical, and my gut reaction to this was pure hatred.  Certainly, it was fueled by the events of the previous two weeks.  The Ferguson news hit me very hard, and the story in Eric Garner’s case had similarly knocked the wind out of me.  Still, even discounting my extremely emotional state, how could I not take offense at her suggestion that I was lacking honesty in these discussions about race with my children and taking the “easiest way out”?  And not only did she attack my parenting, she then had to go and call attention to how poor people were to blame for the issues in Ferguson!

While my kids noshed, I launched my counterattack:

I didn’t recall writing it that way, and I stand corrected. I’m not sure that I would consider now characterizing it like that without assessing all of the facts myself first. With the exception of suggesting that no wrongdoing took place, I stand by most of what I wrote otherwise. I was of course improvising after a call from a fairly distressed friend. At the same time, I was contemplating how I will have to have this conversation over and over and over again with my two children of color, how as they grow older I will have to make sure that the message becomes more and more mature so that they understand that behaving the same way a white person would behave in the same circumstances might actually mean death, how they need to fear the people who are supposed to protect them while they should also respect them. I don’t know for sure, but based on your profile picture, these are not conversations that you will have to have with your children. I say you don’t HAVE to have them, but I don’t want to presume that you won’t have them. That’s what I applaud our mutual friend J for doing: moving beyond the privilege of her family’s skin color and helping her children develop empathy and understanding for someone else’s experiences even if those experiences result in a reality that is far different from her children’s. I’d love for you to explain the difficult of navigating these conversations–both for me as a parent to two children of color and for J as a parent to three white children–is “lazy.” I’m trying to convey this without a sense of malice or meanness, something that is nearly impossible in this medium, and I’m hoping that your choice of words (considering the connotation of the word “lazy”) was unintentionally unkind in a similar vein. I’m not sure if any of this counts as playing the “you don’t understand” card, and again I’ll try not to take offense at the suggestion that this discussion about people’s lives and deaths can be reduced to a game playing analogy.

And I do need to request further explanation of your suggestion that poor people have ruined Ferguson over the past two decades. I won’t presume to know about the class dynamics at play in St. Louis County, and at the same time, I’m wondering where you think those poor people should have gone instead of moving to Ferguson? You seem to be suggesting (and I hope you’ll correct me) that those poor people should have had more consideration than moving to an area and ruining property values and the school system. Should neighborhoods have standards about who can move in so that property values don’t fall? Oh wait, our country totally used to do that with redlining, and it’s actually illegal now. (Yes, I’m getting a little snarky now). Should certain types of kids be sent to certain types of schools? Or do all of our nation’s children have the right to a free and public education regardless of their zip code? I guess regarding your final comments above, I’m playing the “I don’t understand” card, and by all means, I’m open to the discussion.

I put my phone away, so my son and I could walk our daughter to her piano lesson.  I was pretty sure there would be a reply once we got back.  I was right:

I certainly didn’t mean to call anyone lazy or be unkind, but was talking about “lazy narratives” in the general sense. I have four white children and, unlike J, have chosen to remain in the city and send our three youngest children to school in a neighborhood more racially and economically diverse than our own. I have had conversations with my children about race and religion but have been careful about not unintentionally passing on my own biases and untruths. I also strongly believe that experiencing the positive aspects of diversity is just as important as the conversations, though I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses otherwise. I believe in racial, gender and sexual preference equality and can assure you that I have put my time, effort and money where my mouth is. Interestingly, in no way did I suggest that poor people have “ruined” Ferguson – that is your assumption. I have been a very vocal proponent of subsidized housing in my area. But, if you look at municipal demographics over the past two decades in St. Louis County, it is a fact that as poor people move into an area, crime increases, educational scores are reduced and property values are lowered. This DOES have a very real consequence to long-term residents and it is a factor. It’s interesting how people can care so much about their own economic situation, but are so quick to dismiss the plight of others. I also in absolutely no way suggested that poor people should be redlined – again, I pointed out historical information based on fact patterns – and the jump to that conclusion is completely your own bias and assumptions about me.

Okay, now I really needed someone to hold my jewelry so I could go off on this woman.  In the moment, in seemed like the right thing to do:

Thanks for the clarification, although I’m still a bit confused. I’m probably jumping to conclusions again, but it sounds like the bottom line is you’re sad for the long-term residents because poor people moved into the neighborhood. Again, I’m probably still leaping, but It sounds like you don’t mind if poor people move somewhere, but only as long as you get to shake your head at how sad it is that they bring their downtrodden life with them. As a teacher, I can attest that kids who come from poverty have a much more challenging time learning than kids who come from middle and upper class families. (It sounds like you’re admitting that too.) So what is the answer? I didn’t think you were suggesting we go back to redlining, but I brought that up only to say that I don’t see your point. Yes the violence and looting has hurt people’s livelihoods. What other obvious ramifications of the last few months can we point out? Linking that to impoverished people choosing to move to a particular neighborhood sounds elitist. (Sorry, jumping again.) You can’t simply point out “historical accuracies” and not think people are going to draw conclusions in a heated topic like this, especially when we’re talking about race and “historically” minority groups have been overrepresented as the nation’s poor.

And I still don’t know what you meant by “lazy narratives,” not even in the “general sense.” I just Googled it because I was starting to think I was out of the loop on some hip urban white slang, but I came up empty. (Now I admittedly might be getting a little rude, but ask J, I’m sardonic by nature and it’s part of my charm.)

As I was typing this, J posted a short response about your kids. I had already typed that it’s nice to hear that you’ve chosen to send 75% of your children to public schools, but that’s crazy me jumping to conclusions again. You apparently have NOT chosen to send your kids to public schools. Why not? Because of those terrible poor kids who bring down test scores? (Okay, now I’m just getting bitchy, but come on, why not mention that you send your kids to private school in your clarification above except to imply otherwise?)

I’m open to the discussion even though I’m a bit fraught and coming off a bit pissy. Facebook certainly isn’t the best place to discuss these things, but in what other context would you, a white mom with four kids in urban St. Louis (who I’m assuming is fairly middle to upper-middle class given the private school option) get the chance to touch base with this New England subrban gaysian dad with a white husband and two kids of color?

I was pissed, and although she couldn’t do anything other than take offense at my words and tone, I was doing my best to keep things at least a little bit lighter.  She didn’t see it that way:

Three of my children attend a city parochial school where most families pay a very reduced tuition and the average family income is less than half of the median income in J’s public school. As I said – it is more racially and economically diverse than the city neighborhood in which I live. Our public school system is unaccredited and so the selfish choice I made is to not send my children there. J can tell you if she thinks that is more or less selfish than her decision to live, work and send her children to one of the most intentionally white municipalities in St. Louis and you can review if you have made similar decisions. I understand that this is an emotionally-charged issue that is very personal to you and probably makes it more difficult to approach rationally. And I’m sure that my preference for logic and honest analysis comes off as cold. But tell me how approaching it your way – i.e., making up all kinds of statements that I never said or even insinuated, name-calling and snark as a mode of deflection – going to derive a solution? Is this even about finding a solution or do you just want some smug satisfaction that you have all the answers (which, by the way, is a by-product of the confirmation bias that started this all)? I actually do think I can bring up historical accuracies and think that people are not going to draw irrational conclusions, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all of the lawyers and scientists in my FB feed! My point in bringing up the changing demographics in Ferguson is that it has created two separate and quite distinct groups – the haves and the have nots – which has created a tension not only among the residents of the community, but the municipal government, police, etc… This isn’t about minding where poor people move (seriously, how do you come up with this stuff?), but about figuring out how to address the tension in a way that promotes equality while protecting the structure of the neighborhood. Do you not care if your children’s school declines? I know J cares based on her decisions. So if we care, why shouldn’t the residents of Ferguson? Why should we not anticipate it and find solutions? How else are we going to promote truly diverse neighborhoods where all children have access to the same educational system? Elitism would be believing that I am superior to poor residents. Pragmitism is recognizing that, historically in this area, neighborhoods that have poor residents have issues that need to be addressed, which is what I described. “Lazy narrative” describes a tendency to identify individual’s roles early on based on per-conceived notions and then not change those roles as additional facts are uncovered. I’ve seen it used most frequently as a criticism of biased media reporting.

Selfish?  What now?

Thanks for the link and update; I’m curious if based on the discussion here you still consider me a lazy narrator.

I hardly think that this Facebook conversation is going to “derive a
solution,” and my snarky commentary isn’t meant to deflect; I think it’s fairly clear that it’s meant to fan the flames. And in what name-calling am I engaging? Are you objecting to my suggestion that some of your remarks could be considered elitist? Like maybe the one about the abundance of lawyers and scientists in your FB feed? I don’t know where I got that idea!

I wonder at your intentions in bringing this up on J’s page as well. If you know her well, you know she’s an incredibly deep and thoughtful and meaningful person. Your posts here have done little more than call her out as a major part of the racial problems in your area. She has made a different choice than you did with your kids. You seem to suggest that you don’t judge other parents for their choices, but you sound pretty judgey to me. Our children are not social experiments. We do what we deem is right for them, just as you have for your children. As you know from our long history together, I like to make assumptions, and it sounds to me like you’re the one whose defensive about what your community lost when J’s family chose to move to the suburbs. Parents second guess themselves, and it seems like you’re no different. I like that about you. I think it’s why our relationship has lasted as long as it has. But don’t pretend that your guise of calm and rationale demeanor masks the way in which you have consistently called out a woman you claim is a friend.

This thread has clearly digressed. Perhaps the other reason we’re such good friends is that we both like to have the last word. I assume this isn’t the end, but I’m calling it a night.

Surprisingly, that was the end of it.  Now I still stand by most of what I wrote, but in the end, it wasn’t very productive.  This was a white, urban, middle class woman in the Midwest who believes in diversity.  She seems to champion her pragmatic liberalism, and it’s that very quality that allowed her to feel comfortable challenging J’s posts about Ferguson.  She clearly had judged me.  She’d decided upon reading my previous blog post that I was avoiding the truth with my kids, and that allowed her to believe that I am part of the problem.  I am excruciatingly honest with my children about the world in which they live, and I never deliberately lie to them about the realities they will face.  As I wrote in one of the comments above, I stand corrected in my original suggestion on how to talk to kids about Ferguson.  It’s not easy to explain all of this to children who will actually experience the racism in this world as opposed to the allies out there who do the same with their while kids primarily for the purposes of empathy.  It’s difficult, and sometimes I get it wrong and have to go back and fix what I’ve said or done.  In no way is it “lazy” to make a mistake.

Of course, in this exchange I judged her as well.  As I mentioned, I’ve been extremely sensitive with the media frenzy over all that’s going on, and I so rarely get to be allies to my ally friends that I jumped at the challenge the second I had the opportunity.

I think part of what motivated my vehement reactions was my own jealousy over this woman’s purported anchoring logic.  I’ve had the same reaction with teachers in my school who have addressed the news in their classrooms.  I’m honestly so envious of the calm and measured response because that’s something I’m still not capable of.  In two of my classes for adult educators this week, I’ve broken down into tears in articulating how this all affects my children.  I know that this conversation is hard for many people; my friend J in St. Louis is testament to that.  But this woman’s ability to suggest that if we simply step back and look at the completely contradictory and conflicting evidence we might be able to clam down a bit was just too much for me to handle.

What I’d like to convey to this woman now–to her and to all like-minded white people who consider themselves part of the solution as opposed to the problem–is that this is about so much more than individual guilt or innocence.  It’s about feelings of helplessness and inequality and the lives and deaths of our children.

Verna Myers’ TED Talk “You Can Help Stop the Violence Against Young Black Men” helped me a lot this week, both in distilling for me the issues of bias at play in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases (and so many more) and by providing so actual hope for what we can do about “the Ferguson in all of us,” and that includes the people of color in this country.  This video at least got me to a place where I could facilitate some productive discussions with my students, and I hope it will help me to stop fanning the flame wars on Facebook.

Advertisements

Conversations Postponed

This morning, I walked into my office at work, saw a trusted colleague and friend, and started sobbing.  It was one of those moments where I didn’t really know it was going to happen.  I kept thinking I could recover, but it soon became apparent I couldn’t.  We found a private space, and she talked me down off the ledge.

I don’t think there was any one thing that set me off, but the last few days have been personally tumultuous.  With the news out of Ferguson on Monday night, I came in on Tuesday morning to a school-wide email from a fellow colleague that she planned on addressing the events in Missouri overnight in her classes and she hoped the rest of the staff would as well.  I was conflicted.  I know the conversation is important, and I know that talking all of this about openly and honestly is the only way to get to a better place.  Things were just too raw for me, and I knew that if a kid started talking about how race played no role in Michael Brown’s death I was going to lose it.  And that wouldn’t be productive for any of us.  The focus of a classroom conversation like this needs to be on WHY people are so angry as opposed to whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted.  The classroom needs to be a safe space for all my students, not just the ones who have the same political perspective on the world as I do.  And I just wasn’t ready to maintain that kind of focus with my students.

So I chose to stay silent.  The few times I thought I might speak up, tears welled up in my eyes and I had to stop.  At lunch, some colleagues talked about how the conversations went in their classrooms.  Most of the kids reported that they hadn’t talked about it, and in one class a group of African American Boston students were more than ready to get a few things off their chest.

I called the friend who taught that class later that night and expressed frustration that we weren’t taking a more collective approach to addressing this issue as a school.  She challenged me to articulate which I’d prefer, teachers having the conversation even if they weren’t adept at leading it or simply promoting silence on the matter.  I know that teachers can actually do more harm than good if they aren’t careful and deliberate about how they facilitate these conversations with students and I also know that silence sends a much heavier message.  I just kept coming back to the idea that we needed to come together with some consensus as an institution about how to deal with issues like this.

Then I spent the rest of the night reading articles and blog posts and Twitter feeds about Ferguson, which didn’t help my emotional well being.  One post (I can’t remember where I read it, but I want to say it was Tim Wise) mentioned that white privilege surfaces even in the liberal reaction to the events in Missouri this week.  The post essentially said that if you are outraged by what is happening in Ferguson, you are still in a more privileged position than the millions of people who have had their fears reinforced by what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.

That made me pause for a moment.  I am absolutely outraged by the events that began last August, and at the same time, I fear for the day when my children will fall victim to the bias and prejudice that leads to innocent black deaths over and over, seemingly with increased frequency.  Our son is incredibly impulsive as a six-year-old, and I worry how that impulsivity will manifest in his teenager years, especially as brown-skinned boy in our all white town with a nearly all white police force.

During my breakdown this morning, I realized that my real issue is the way in which my husband and I have to prepare both of our children for the reality that they need to treat each encounter with a police officer as a potentially fatal one, no matter how unfairly they feel they are being treated or how safe they think they actually are.  And this isn’t something that my husband and I have experienced as fully as they will.  I can attest to a certain amount of fear when being pulled over with my Human Rights Campaign emblem and rainbow sticker on the bumper, but gay men aren’t strapped with the stereotype of aggression that black and brown men are.  And my fears are fairly irrational when compared to the statistics–not so for my kids.

After I recovered, I blew my nose and ran off to focus on Holden Caufield’s fictional problems, which ended up being far easier to do than focusing on my own.  And now that the Thanksgiving weekend has officially begun, I am hoping I can focus on my family, give thanks for the love that keeps us together and the wits that will keep us safe.  And next week, I’ll find the courage to steel myself from how very personal this all feels and chat with my students a bit about how Michael Brown is playing an important role in getting us all to talk about this country’s race problem.

Reacting with Understanding

In eighth grade, I was a short gay Asian kid with pimples and a mullet.  I was awkward, just like everyone is at that age.  My weirdness mostly blended in with everyone else’s; I had good friends and people liked me.

Except Maria.  She sat behind me in English class.  Every day, we’d shuffle into Mr. Anderson’s room for the last class of the day, I quickly learned to begrudge the seating arrangement.  Maria hated me for some reason.  I may have known why at the time, but I don’t think I did.  She’d say horrible things to me, whispering them in my ear.  When I didn’t pass papers back quickly enough, she’d shove me in the back of the head: “Come on.  Pass ’em back.  What’s wrong with you?”  I was known in middle school for being a smart ass jerk to teachers, using my witty repartee to put them in their place or get a laugh from the class without actually saying anything that could get me in trouble.  Still, I was willing to make a federal case out of being bullied like this.

This daily assault continued until one day I snapped.  She shoved me in the back of the head, calling me stupid, and I turned around and backhanded her.  In the middle of English.  It was one of those moments where all you here are the proverbial crickets in the background as everyone’s head quickly turned to find the source of the sharp crack as my hand met her cheek.  Maria immediately started crying, and Mr. Anderson asked us to stay after class.

When I explained myself, Mr. Anderson felt I had been pushed into a corner after Maria admitted that she had been treating me horribly.  He moved my seat and made us promise to treat each other better in exchange for not reporting any of the bad behavior that had taken place in his room.

As I sit here today trying to make sense of the news out of Ferguson last night and the resulting protests–both the peaceful and the violent–I’m reminded of how quickly any one of us can be pushed to that snapping point.  The violence isn’t a result of one simple grand jury decision; it’s the catalyst for a mixture of volatile chemicals that has been simmering for far too long.  When I slapped Maria, I wasn’t thinking.  I was angry and embarrassed and I wanted to hurt her.  I look back and I know it was a mistake no matter how good it felt or how much mileage I’ve gotten out of the story in the last twenty-five years since it happened.  This morning as I watched the footage of the looting and the burning, I thought about how I can understand the reaction.  I don’t necessarily agree with it or think it’s the right thing, but I can understand it.

That same year in middle school–I wasn’t the best behaved kid–I got kicked out of choir.  There must have been about sixty kids in chorus, and all of my best friends were in the room.  I would talk and talk and talk with them any chance I got.  Mr. S, our choral director, would pause for a moment to chat with the pianist, and I’d zip over the sopranos to talk about last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.  Mr. S was incredibly frustrated by my behavior, constantly letting out a sigh as he called me back to me seat.  He often ignored the other people talking to focus in on me, and I started to feel like he was unfairly targeting me.

Then one day, I decided to make a change.  I wasn’t going to talk in class today.  I was going to stay focused and wait patiently in between songs.  Mr. S. pauses for a moment between numbers and turned his back to the choir, which immediately burst into gossipy action.  I sat quietly looking at my music.  Mr. S. turned around and with barely a glance at the room he called my name and asked me to be quiet.

“What?” I was incredulous.

“I asked you to stop talking.  Again.”

“I wasn’t even talking!”  Now I was getting riled up, and I started yelling.  “You’re always focusing in on me.  I know I talk a lot, but so does everyone else!”  By now the entire room was focused on me.  “You’re always calling on me to be quiet and today I wasn’t even talking!  What’s wrong with you?”

Mr. S. remained calm as the class listened for his response.  “I get the feeling you don’t respect me.”

“Well Mr. S., that’s something you have to earn.”  A few kids gasped.

“Please take a seat.”

The next day, I was informed by the main office I was no longer in choir.  Mr. S. never had a conversation with me and I resented him for years, even when I saw him at a wedding about ten years later.  I’m sure he didn’t feel that he’d done anything wrong.  I was a talkative kid who drew focus from his teaching.  As a teacher now, the kids who act like I did are the ones that drive me the most crazy, and I am in awe of how calm Mr. S. always in response to my constant pushing.  At the time though, I was even ready to admit that I was a talkative and distracting kid and I felt that he wasn’t treating me the same as the rest of the class.  Both of these realities existed for each of us, and maybe if we had a chance to sit down and talk about them, each really listening to the other, we might have reached a different end.

This is my contribution to the Ferguson reaction today.  There are many people in this country who don’t believe the black perspective.  Someone else’s point of view isn’t for any of us to believe or disbelieve; it’s for us to understand, even when its truth serves as a complete antithesis to our own.  In my professional work in these topics, when someone says that they simply can’t believe a particular position is true, we ask, “Well what if it were?”

These conversations need to happen more authentically more often.  And then maybe we won’t feel the need to react to perceived indignities with anything more than a measured dialogue.

Hard Work

I had the pleasure of facilitating a student leadership conference yesterday helping participants grapple with the difficult conversations of race relations in their home schools.  My school sent a contingency of three black students, two white students, and one Asian student, and there were ten other schools participating, with more than 75 students in attendance in total.  It was a great opportunity to have some difficult and honest conversations about the role race plays in our specific school settings.

One of the most challenging things was hearing students from all schools express frustration about the lack of support they get for the sustainability of their initiatives.  They come back from conferences like this filled with ideas and enthusiasm, and most of them will get something started in their home schools, whether it’s something simple like celebrating Black History Month in February or planning an assembly highlighting diversity.  The issue though is institutionalizing these endeavors so that they do more than checking a box.  Did we cover diversity this year?  Check.  Should we cover it next year.  We’ll see.

In my nearly fifteen years as an educator, I’ve seen lots of interesting proposals come from colleagues and students about how to improve the dialogue around race in schools, and I’ve watched as the really great ideas produce meaningful experiences for the stakeholders involved…and then I watch how the following year we start from scratch, sometimes acting like we solved the problem and sometimes acting like we have no idea what we could do to address it.  Several years ago, a group of teachers organized an assembly at my school celebrating diversity; a teacher spoke about his experiences coming out, a black female student detailed her feelings about never being asked out by a white student, and a freshman girl bound to a wheelchair explained what her daily life is like.  After that assembly, I remember my classes had the richest discussions about diversity we’ve ever had.  And then we haven’t had an assembly like it since.

This isn’t really the fault of any individual or policy; it’s the nature of education I think.  We live in these cycles where one quarter of our clientele changes every year so that at the end of a four-year period we are dealing with a population that has no institutional memory longer than three years.  As teachers, we get caught up in this too.  The amazing veterans who have retired fade from our mind as we struggle to bring the newbies up to speed, and the amazing crew of students we had last year dissipate from our consciousness as they are replaced by a hundred new faces.

This idea of solidifying great ideas happens even on a small scale in the classroom.  I will teach a lesson that is amazing one year, and then the following year, I’ll forget how awesome it was and try to reinvent the wheel, only to remember that I had some ready-made hour of teaching buried in my computer’s file folders.  (I’m insanely organized, so I have to admit that this doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen on occasion.)

In any event, I did give our students at the conference yesterday a list of the things that I feel have been successful in the past even though they never got to experience them themselves.  Initiatives like this are all the more powerful when they are student driven, and guiding a group of students to make the right choices each year is exhausting for whatever adult ends up taking on the role of mentor.

But the reason I continue to do this work in anti-racist educational practices is because it does matter; it matters a lot.  I think I need to ask Siri to remind me that it matters every Monday morning so that I don’t forget.  It is the privilege of teaching where I do, where most of my students are white and middle class, that I can get away with focusing in on the symbolism of Holden’s red hunting hat instead of the ways in which the expectations of his affluence contribute to his depression.  I can work hard at drawing connections between the great literature I teach and the social problems of the world today, and sometimes I’m just really tired, especially when I’m merely planting seeds that won’t flourish in these students until well after they leave my classroom.  I need the reminders to give me energy to keep pushing even when I’m exhausted and the students seem apathetic.

Yesterday was that reminder, so Siri can take the day off tomorrow.

Dancing Bears

As part of today’s marathon day, after teaching a full day at school I’ll head out to facilitate a three-hour workshop on racial identity in teaching.  The workshop meets about every two weeks, and as we wade through the complicated ideology of race and education each session, we always make time for participants to “check in” on things they’ve noticed over the period of time between sessions.

We stress that as educators and as members of this complicated American society, we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.  That may sound convoluted, but for many of us that grew up in the latter part of the twentieth century, race and its impact on achievement and success was a taboo topic, something that we learned very early not to talk about.  As we take on different perspectives, we tend to see things in ways we never imagined possible.  This is true in these workshops, as well as in life in general; it’s one of the reasons I love teaching great literature because it provides the opportunity to experience the world as something completely unique to our own experiences.

To illustrate these points in class, my co-teachers and I use this great video:

If we don’t know what to look for, we typically won’t see it.  This is the lesson we teach with racial dynamics in America, and it’s something that constantly surprises me.  I’m constantly seeing dancing bears in my world, and I’ve been doing this work for several years.

In today’s session, I’ll be “checking in” on a few things I heard in the two weeks since I last met with this group.  Here are some highlights:

  • This NPR piece about double-eyelid surgery that many people believe is representative of Asian women pursuing a more Western standard of beauty
  • This article exploring the ways in which Kim Kardashian’s recent nude cover photo extravaganza actually is an explicit reference to the objectification and oppression of women of color

  • The story behind one black man’s six-word identity phrasing as part of the Race Card Project: “With kids, I’m dad.  Alone, thug.”
  • The recent lawsuit against Harvard claiming that the school unfairly limits the number of Asian Americans it admits, a lawsuit that is actually a veiled anti-Affirmative Action test case

These stories are everywhere, particularly within my social circles and the media in my world.  Granted, my specific identity and perspective help me gravitate toward friends that post this sort of stuff on Facebook and dictate what type of news I listen to.  Still, it excited me to be living in a time where these conversations can be had so publicly.  Slowly, we are chipping away at the stigma of even talking about race and how it impacts our daily existence in this country.  There are still lots of examples of the pernicious effects of our racist history, but when something like Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson happens, I’m thankful that we can engage in a dialogue about how race plays a role, even if there are still lots of people who don’t want to believe that it does.

So I’ll continue to look for dancing bears.  I’ll continue to post them on Facebook.  I’ll continue to use these stories to promote my left-wing gay agenda in my teaching.  And I’ll continue to use them to teach my own children to be safe and happy in this world.

Facebook, Teaching, and Racial Identity

The world of Facebook can be tough for a teacher to navigate.  Student friend requests are inevitable, but luckily my current school system has a policy prohibiting social media relationships between current students and faculty.  I’m honest with my seniors who want to friend me; typically, I’ll except the friend request after graduation, but they are immediately placed on a “limited profile” setting, which means they don’t have access to much more than my profile picture.  If they can go a year or two without showing me lots of photos of them boozing it up, they gain access to my full profile.  (If I do see too may underage party pictures, I delete the friendship.)  There are some students who I tentatively give access to my entire profile because I trust them not to go forwarding my status updates to current students, so if you’re nineteen and you’re reading this, congratulations for making it to the big time.

During my first five years of teaching, I taught English full time and ran the extracurricular drama program at a semi-urban school just outside of Boston.  When I taught at this school, Facebook was barely in its infancy, and I didn’t even get an account until after I left.  Once I did though, the friend requests from former students came flooding in, and in my naivety I accepted them all.  In fact, it was one of the students from that school that taught me how to set up my “limited profile” option specifically for some of those students, as well as for the long list of people from high school and middle school that really don’t need to know where I’m eating dinner tonight or see pictures of my kids’ soccer games.

Like most of the little towns surrounding the urban center, this town had it’s neighborhoods of upper-middle class parents who wanted to own a house with a yard but still be close to the city, and then there were the other pockets of town where the poorer families lived, marked by run down apartments and the projects.  The former was populated almost entirely by white families, and the latter by families of color.  In my English classes, my upper level AP courses rarely had any students of color, although I’m sure nearly half the school identified as a racial minority.

One of those rare AP students who was not white was an awesome kid who happened to be biracial.  He and a friend of his really enjoyed my AP English class for some reason, and they even gave me a gift of Virginia Woolf’s published journals upon graduation because they knew how much I liked her.  This was incredibly meaningful, especially since as the drama director on campus, most of the teacher love I felt from students came from that ego-feeding extracurricular work I did outside of the classroom.  That initial impact I had on this young man in particular still moves me today, a decade later, considering that I had no idea about the impact of racial identity on education in those first few years of teaching.  I’m sure I was no whiz of a teacher in those days, and perhaps this kid has even reconsidered my academic prowess in his maturity since then, and if he reads this, I apologize for my lack of maturity myself in those early years of teaching.  Since we’re friends on Facebook–and he has not been relegated to limited profile–I’m able to see his various status updates from time to time.  He’s done very well for himself, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a world traveler to boot.

Recently, he posted this article on Facebook, and it struck a chord with me.  I’m extremely familiar with this type of thinking.  There are far too many stories about families like this who think they can be treated equally only to be smacked in the face with an individual’s bias.  This article was posted yesterday, and it echoes the sentiment of work from nearly a hundred years ago, like Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which I remember reading myself in high school.  I know the former student who posted the Washington Post article is doing really well, and from what little I can glean from the few Facebook posts I see (I wonder if I’m on his “limited profile”?), he seems to have a sound sense of his own racial identity.  But it still got me to thinking about the ways in which I’ve missed out on helping students through that process because of my own limited understanding of self.

In my work on anti-bias teaching practices, I’ve become a full supporter of William Cross’s theory of racial identity development, in particular the idea of “pre-encounter” and “encounter” stages.  In the pre-encounter stage, one is unaware of his or her racial identity.  Everyone is the same.  In Cullen’s poem, the speaker stays in pre-encounter until the title incident at age eight.  The encounter phase quickly calls into question the individual’s racial identity, a loss of innocence essentially, about the way the world view’s him or her.  This is followed by a few more stages: “immersion-emersion,” where the individual attempts to embrace their new racial identity and reject the dominant one (in this country, that’s white), and the final stage, “internalization-commitment,” where the individual finds a healthy place to co-exist as a racial minority in a white dominant society in pursuit of some positive social change.

This is obviously a super complicated theory, and I’m surely not doing it justice.  But in today’s supposedly post-racial American society, there are many who believe the individuals who persist in dredging this stuff up are the problem.  Self-proclaimed conservatives in my family use Facebook to post lots of ideology on this topic, just like I do.  I read what they post, as I’m sure they do mine as well, and usually neither of us comments on the other, accepting the silent disagreement that has helped families function, as my students would say, “throughout time.”  Pieces like this recent interview with child star Raven-Symone in which she decries labels like “African American” and “gay.”  People celebrate this mentality because it supports the “we are all American” belief.

I’m starting to believe myself that what is happening in the post-Obama America is that Cross’s “encounter” phase is simply happening later in life than it used to.  Kids are growing up as kids, believing in equality, and kids of color see their race as merely a physical trait rather than a defining characteristic of identity.  To a certain extent, there’s a beauty in that.  And at the same time when that encounter finally comes, sometimes in adulthood, it can be all the more traumatizing.  That’s at the heart of the Lawrence Otis Graham’s article, and it echoes lots of other sentiments from people who felt they were immune to racism in this country because of their hard work and stature.  For example, this Major League Baseball player wrote his own version of his “encounter” phase in The Atlantic Monthly in April.  And what happens when this encounter takes place later in life is that it causes the individual to call into question every encounter previously, and as an adult that can drastically alter your world view.

My own experiences speak to this, as I grew up essentially feeling white.  My Dutch-Indonesian mother married my white father when I was extremely young, and his extended white Catholic family and my parents’ middle class white friends made up the bulk of my social world.  In school, I was tracked into the honors program with mostly white kids and a few Asian kids.  The latter felt different from me since they were from “real” Asian countries like Viet Nam and China and Japan and Korea.  Indonesia barely registered as Asian to me at all. And so I identified with the white kids.

Then I went to college on the East Coast where there numbers of “real” Asians I identified in my home state of California were far smaller.  During my first few weeks in Boston, I bumped into someone on the street, and he glared at me and mumbled, “Stupid Asians.”  Minutes after meeting my sophomore roommate Eddie, he told me, “I’m Korean, and don’t worry, I brought the rice cooker.”  He moved out a few weeks later because he wanted to live with another Korean.  These experiences were sources of hilarity for me and my white friends.  Can you believe that they thought I was Asian?!

Then in graduate school, I taught for a while in the cornfields of upstate New York.  I was called a gook more than once by disgruntled students.  The elementary kids I worked with asked me if I knew judo or karate.  And I started to get the picture.  I was in fact Asian.  A real Asian.

Because it didn’t matter at the time what I felt inside.  It had to do with how other people view me.  We know today that race itself is a social construct with little to no basis in actual science.  I can walk around telling people I feel white, but I will always encounter people who will tell me otherwise.  And so I moved through that phase into a stage where I accepted that aspect of myself, and brought it to a healthy place.

In an ideal world, Rayven-Simone’s generic identity would be something to which everyone can aspire.  But as parents and teachers in this contemporary society, we have to prepare our young people for the realities of the world out there.  I need to teach my own two children that they are amazing individuals who can work hard to be amazing and part of that hard work will be to counteract the bias and discrimination they will inevitably face.  I can do this for my students of color too, and for my white students, which is the vast majority of my students, I can teach them to be a part of the solution, to acknowledge that our experiences are individually different and that one person’s reality can be different from their own.

Where I’m From

Day five of NaBloPoMo and I’m barely hanging on by a string.  I just booked a flight cross country this weekend to visit my ailing grandfather, and I just finished making arrangements for child coverage for my husband while I’m gone.  Now it’s way too late, and if I wait much longer I’ll miss my day five window.  So in honor of the many phone calls to California tonight and the cross referencing of which flight will get me where when and the plaintive calls to friends who are just like family to us to see who can take the kids to soccer and dance and back again–an evening that’s been focused entirely on family, both the one three feet away and the one 3000 miles away–I thought I’d post a poem I’ve written for my professional work in racial identity development.  My co-teacher and I ran a session tonight for 20+ educators, and we asked them to write a similar poem, following Linda Christensen’s fantastic suggestions.  The idea is to help educators locate themselves in order to better help students navigate these often difficult paths, and it’s something I’ve done for myself and with my high school students to great success.

I’m no poet, that’s certain.  But I took a crack at the poem a few years ago, and I retool it every now and then before sharing it with students; and it’s at least something that I think represents many of the aspects of “where I’m from.”  Here’s the current incarnation:

I Am From

I am from Saturday night poker games,
eggs purchased in crates,
and broken English laughter.
I am from bami and poffertjes
and fist fights with many, many cousins
to “godverdomme” and “Tante” and “Om.”
I am from “Oma” and “Opa,” too.

I am from a stranger of a father,
broken memories from my mother,
an overly logical engineer,
and knowing too much about
alcohol and drugs.

I am from questioning my feelings,
wondering “will they still love me?”
and “maybe it’s a just a phase”
and “what’s wrong with me?”

I am from new families created
By everything but blood
With the strongest of ties
That will never be broken.

I am from a complicated history that
begins on an island,
travels over many seas,
and stumbles through the United States
and back
that ends with me.